Relationship expectations are the values and ideals people hold about relationships, as well as the behaviours people expect their partners to exhibit. Relationships are complex, and so it is natural for people (particularly those with limited relationship experience) to look to examples of how to behave. Given the prevalence of the media in modern life, it is not surprising that TV shows, tabloids and movies are common sources of information that individuals draw upon to inform their approach to relationships. However, as the relationships portrayed in these sources are designed primarily for entertainment, they are not always accurate and can skew our expectations.

Relationships portrayed in the media are often centred on passion and drama. The daily workings of a successful relationship are often not documented because they are not interesting to watch, so this may leave viewers with an idealised view of what a successful relationship looks like and what skills are involved in maintaining one. Physical attractiveness, enjoyment and chemistry are key qualities emphasised by the media, however, though these are important at the beginning of a relationship, they are only a small fraction of what contributes to an ongoing, committed partnership. When reality does not coincide with fantasy, this can lead to disappointment as expectations are not fulfilled.

Cultivation

The concept of ‘cultivation’ describes an individual taking what is shown in the media and using it to alter their social reality. For instance, sexual promiscuity is portrayed widely in the media through music videos, movies and TV shows. This may have contributed to the normalisation of sexual promiscuity in Western culture, particularly in younger generations. As we observe so many characters on our TV screens engaging in this behaviour, we therefore assume that it is functional and common. People often fail to consider the emotional and health-related consequences of sexual promiscuity and the impact it has on the development of long-term relationship-building skills, as people often end relationships once the chemistry has decreased.

Social learning theory (SLT) and Social Cognitive Theory (SCT)

SLT and SCT both convey the fact that people learn how to behave by watching how others behave and gain knowledge about what is ‘normal’ through their social environment, including the media. For this reason, high levels of TV viewing can lead people to adopt unhelpful relationships behaviours and beliefs because they are perceived as normal and functional. Particularly as Western society becomes more individualistic and media-centric, most of the relationship models we are exposed to (outside of our immediate family) are those of TV and movie characters, rather than real people within our communities. Unfortunately, the media tends to portray idealised or catastrophised versions of relationships, because they are the most entertaining to watch. Additionally, the eventual difficulties within those fairy-tale relationships, and the long-term hurt that goes along with dramatic relationships, are not portrayed. Therefore, viewers may erroneously believe they will experience the same lack of consequences for chasing the idealised partner or engaging in a series of dramatic, dysfunctional partnerships.

Pornography

Pornography is one aspect of the media that is actively implicated in the break down of relationships. Here are some interesting facts about the impact of pornography on psychological functioning and behaviour:

  • Individuals who want to stop viewing pornography tend to have a difficult time doing so.
  • The frequency of viewing pornography (3-5 times a week or more) is related to elevated depression, anxiety and loneliness. Those who view it frequently also experience less overall happiness and life satisfaction. These are the results of research on more than 3,000 married and single men and women.
  • Women who discover their partner’s involvement in pornography report high levels of fear and anxiety.

Pornography generally portrays an unrealistic image of sex. If a person views it regularly they may develop distorted expectations about the sexual experience and, if they become accustomed to achieving arousal and climax using pornography, they may develop a need for more extreme sexual activities in order to achieve these, which their partner may be unable or unwilling to engage in. Additionally, the ability to achieve sexual arousal instantly, without the need for emotional vulnerability, may reduce the need to extend oneself socially, and can therefore lead to isolation and poorer relationship-building skills.

Seeking assistance

If you feel that you or your relationship may be impacted by the issues above, then this is an ideal time to seek professional counselling.

At Strategic Psychology, we offer professional relationship counselling to help build more functional skills and deal with some of the issues discussed above, such as pornography addiction, infidelity and high-risk sexual activity.

You can access individual assistance or come as a couple. We can help provide the framework for improving your relationship — with yourself and your partner — and help you achieve the change you need.

Related reading:

The Little Things Happy Couples Do Every Day
Making the Most of Couples Counselling
Importance of Trust in a Relationship